Australia v England, 3rd Test, Perth, 1st day December 13, 2013

Mature innings that means something from Smith

Steve Smith's innings at the WACA was patient and significant, and showed how far he has come.

It's one thing to score a Test hundred in a dead rubber, quite another to do it when your side is in a bind with a series win on the line. An Ashes win.

The centuries scored by Steven Smith and Shane Watson at The Oval in August were meaningful for the individuals, but not for the team. Big runs early in this home campaign against England, not after the Urn has been regained, that is what Australia needed from Smith and Watson. So far one has delivered, one has not.

Australia came to Perth 2-0 up and confident, but aware that an England victory could undo all their good work. When Australia lost their third wicket before lunch and Smith walked to the crease, the pressure was immense. Chris Rogers had run himself out. Michael Clarke had been caught attacking the spinner.

Watson had edged a ball he should have left. Leave on length - that's the old WACA cliché. At slip, Graeme Swann caught the ball above his head; Watson's stumps were not in danger from that Stuart Broad delivery.

Smith walked to the crease with an awful first-class record at the WACA, averaging 17.20 in six games.

"My patience now has changed a bit. Going out there, it's pretty key to watch the ball closely and leave well early," Smith said on Tuesday when asked about how he would approach such an unsuccessful venue. "That's going to be part of my game this week."

When Smith reached his century with a boundary pulled through midwicket, the graphics said it all. Eighty of his runs had come on the leg side, from muscular pulls when the bowlers dropped short, as they did often, and flicks off the pads when they strayed in length. Only 20 had come through the off side. He chose his strokes well. The pitch map was just as revealing; a big cluster of good-length balls outside off, nearly all of them dots. This was an innings of patience.

His century at The Oval was brought up with a six down the ground; his hundred at the WACA began with one. It took until his 16th ball to get off the mark, a lofted drive over long-on that was struck firmly and safely with a straight bat. As he would for the rest of the day, he respected the balls that would cause him danger, and acted decisively against those that would not.

Smith faced 147 dot balls. The Steven Smith of two or three years ago did not have that kind of patience. That is precisely why the WACA led him astray. He was the type of player commentators say "likes to feel bat on ball". Not anymore. Against the fast bowlers, he was so resolute that his only scoring shots through the off side came when they dropped short or extremely wide. He more or less refused to drive them through cover or mid-off.

At times he showed he was human. On 85, he played the one shot batting coaches say you should forget about at the WACA - the drive with a bat angled at 45 degrees. He was lucky he missed, smiled, and chastised himself. He edged just short of slip on 92. But to bat for two sessions in Perth's extreme heat and not let your brain wander, you'd need to be super-human. After reaching his hundred, as stumps approached, he was again watching and leaving.

Before today, there were casual Australian fans who viewed him as lucky to be in the side, a bits-and-pieces player promoted too early. That is patently not the case.

It was revealing of Smith's character, for as fidgety at he appears at the crease, as awkward as some of his limited-overs strokes look, he is the kind of cricketer who learns. He takes things in - usually. After stumps, he said he had not heard a chirp when he came out to bat, when an England player seemed to say that Smith was "one game away" from being dropped. Certainly, he had failed in Brisbane and Adelaide, but No. 5 must now be his for some time.

He is Australia's third-highest Test run scorer in 2013, behind Clarke and Warner, and the only Australian besides Clarke averaging over 40 this year (leaving aside Michael Hussey's one Test in the first week of January). Before today, there were casual Australian fans who viewed him as lucky to be in the side, a bits-and-pieces player promoted too early and favoured over others more deserving. That is patently not the case.

Smith and Brad Haddin, Australia's saviour throughout this series, set the team back on course after their early troubles. That there were early troubles again was a worry. So far in this series, Australia have been 6 for 132, 4 for 174 and 5 for 143 in their first innings. Three of the top six - George Bailey, Rogers and Watson - are averaging under 25 in the series. They are fortunate the runs are coming from elsewhere, and not from England.

Australia entered this match with an unchanged side for the third consecutive Test, the first time that had happened since the 2006-07 Ashes. It is a rare luxury, and while they keep winning, the selectors will maintain the status quo. They were lucky that Smith stood up at the WACA. His innings was patient, mature and significant.

It was a hundred that meant something, not like those dead-rubber tons at The Oval. Smith is 24, and he delivered when it counted. Watson is 32, and he has not - yet. He could learn from his junior colleague.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on December 14, 2013, 2:15 GMT

    SurlyCynic you can only score off the blokes in front of you. Great innings and been a fan since India. Uses his feet well and fights which will be important when we play in India. Can score quickly and counter attack. I agree dirty dozen the future Australian Captain (after Clarke retires in a couple of years). I would like to see him move to 3 after South Africa next year or maybe a swap with Watson before then who can bat at 6. If we win here at Perth I'd drop Rogers for Hughes, as Hughes' best position is opening. He can establish an opening partnership with Warner, Hughes' domestic form this summer deserves rewarding.

  • Dummy4 on December 14, 2013, 1:32 GMT

    England's attack was one of the top two in the world not long ago. Nowadays there are only two strong pace attacks and one of them is Australia's.

    This is the problem with Test cricket. There are far too few teams actually playing. The sample size is way too small and the standard deviation way too great. There's really only one outstanding team in the world at this form of the game: South Africa. Then you have a few teams that dominate when the conditions suit them: Australia, India, England, Pakistan. Then you have the rest.

    For those teams in the second category, a win at home really doesn't mean a great deal in the grand scheme of things. Having said that, not long ago Australia was crushed by an England team at home by more or less the same players (Swann, Broad and Anderson are really not all that old, are they?). So there's a case to be made that there's one corner turned at least.

  • Murray on December 14, 2013, 1:22 GMT

    Smith's innings was not just a not out century. It was not just a good innings. This is a truly magnificent innings. Technique *sheesh..... 147 dot balls in 191, means 103 runs in 44 balls. This has been a clinical execution !

  • Trevor on December 14, 2013, 1:14 GMT

    I'm sure there are more batsmen than Watson that could learn a thing or two from Smith. Australia's batting has been unbearably dumb this series. Watson surely would have been dropped long ago had it not been for his handy bowling. I was one of many Australian fans calling for the inclusion of Bailey in the test side, thinking he would be our next Mike Hussey. It seems though that he is out of his depth in this format, he has played some terrible shots to get out and he has not even got close to the patience and sense of responsibility that Hussey had. Phil Hughes is the man that needs to be given an extended run in the team, hopefully without any ill advice from his coaching staff to change his technique, he should be allowed to play his natural game.

  • Benjamin on December 14, 2013, 0:56 GMT

    @SurlyCynic.....there are only two bowling attacks better than England's......South Africa and Australia - and Smithy can't bat against his own team now, can he? You can only play what is in front of you.....and it's not how many you get, it's when you get them. Yesterday was the time to get them - displays Langer-esque determination and grit. Well done young man, stay gold.

  • Tim on December 13, 2013, 23:46 GMT

    Great work Smith. It was a fighting ton that we'd expect to see from Border, Waugh or Hussey. I'll gladly keep you at 5 for a long time. Bailey, Rogers and Watson's spots are all under pressure though. 3 batsmen over 30 not scoring runs. Joe Burns could be in the team in any of those spots. James Faulkner should get the last 2 tests at number 6 if we win Perth and he's fit. It's not knee-jerk, it's building for the future.

  • Heath on December 13, 2013, 22:55 GMT

    @Bari Calyaneratne I agree. He reminds me of a young Steve Waugh.

  • Cameron on December 13, 2013, 22:51 GMT

    He goes totally against the grain of the usual cricketer I tend to like, but there has always been something about Steve Smith. This career defining innings is further proof. He is a scrapper & up for the fight. Roll on Steve, & crunch them hard this morning!

  • David on December 13, 2013, 22:47 GMT

    @disco-bob......agree that surely it's time for Watson to go. A quick Statsguru search of his innings since Jan 2011 shows : 43 Innings at an average of 28. Take out his Oval hundred and the average falls to 24. The most damning stat is that in 21 of those 43 innings he's reached 15 and been out before 40. Clearly not the numbers of a test match batsman.

  • Geoff on December 13, 2013, 22:46 GMT

    I'm very pleased for Steve Smith. It's great to watch a young cricketer develop the way he has. It's also amusing to watch him as he waits for the bowler to start his run-up. With his nervous movements and head bobbing up and down and twisting around to check on fielding positions, he reminds me of a meerkat. And I like meerkats.

  • No featured comments at the moment.